At the same time I have both a feeling of incredible freedom and creativity, and frustration with the structure of the units I teach. On the one hand, the frustration comes from the focus of the units central idea, inquiry points, and teacher provocations. At times, I feel they are too narrow and focused, and provide too many rules for inquiry. On the other hand, I see how that structure can lead to new and creative ways of thinking about the topic, and can lead to an interesting new interpretation of the units main idea. All complex systems require rules and structure, and as a result of those rules and structures, new forms may emerge. A system with too many rules would be mechanical and predictable, while a system with too few rules would be too wide open and chaotic. Harmony exists somewhere in between (not balance, as that suggests it is in the middle of the two, when in real life, I find it moves along the continuum, changing from one moment to the next).
I am going to ask a lot of questions in this post, and not answer too many of them. I am still finding my feet within this system. What I have realized over the course of two years of teaching is that there are many ways to inquire and there are many structures that we use within the course of our unit planning. In my mind, all of them are valid, all of them are effective, and all of them should be celebrated. Each teacher and collective of students has their/her/his own style and should be allowed to explore that style in a manner they regard as effective. Within a typical unit of inquiry, the structure is in place from the beginning, and the teacher needs to make a decision about how their structure will be interpreted and presented (or should the kids do this? Wouldn’t that be student centered learning?).
Case Study: Human Body
This is a unit from the school I previously worked at:
Now, teachers are able to argue the fine points of a units structure for hours on end (I know I am guilty of that and I could go on about this particular overview), but for the time being, lets assume that this is a decent set-up for the unit. Now that this is in place, how do we go about the inquiry? How do we structure the learning from here out and over the next 6-8 weeks? What is the organization? How do we ensure that we will cover all the points in the unit planner? Or, do we need to have a structure in place? Can the students direct the learning from here out? If we allow the unit to emerge naturally out of the structure, will all of the points get covered? Can we change them mid-unit to suit our immediate needs?
My previous coordinator, who was very supportive, suggested that we go through the investigation points one by one. Each inquiry point was connected to a teacher provocation, so it would be structured like this;
We start at the beginning and work our way through the end, building on each point. My co-worker went through this structure and had a great unit. It worked for him and he did a wonderful job of tying it all together in the end. However, I wanted to do it differently. Being a holist, I don’t see huge differences between all the points. To me, they are all implicit in each other. What a living system needs to survive is how it benefits me, and if I don’t keep it healthy it won’t survive. I have difficulty separating ideas. Here is the structure I suggested;
Instead of going through each point and its one question, we went through each point and analyzed it from the perspective of all three questions. What I found happened during the course of this inquiry is that we were looking at all threeTeacher Provocations and Investigation Points at the same time. By the time we got to the third point; maintaining healthy body systems, they already knew about it because we had analyzed it from perspective of the first two. This worked for me.
I am very curious about the different structures that teachers use to deliver units. I have been experiemenitng with using narratives, shapes and metaphor. This has also been successful. I find that when the unit unfolds though a narrative, we are jumping around through all points and questions, sometimes individual points, but sometimes the point are combined. There is no logical order to it, but the narrative ensures their is a logical understanding of it. Although, I don’t plan how we will specifically get to all the points from the outset of the unit, we invariably do reach them all. The narrative allows the structure to emerge naturally through the students. This would be another way to inquire.
I would love to hear from other teachers about the ways of planning inquiry units. How do you use structure? How do you use the inquiry points and questions to go from week 1 to week 6 (or 8)?
There are many ways to inquire. None of them are wrong.
Or are they?